Life is full of problems, so having the ability to solve them is critical to survival. The real question is, “Do we learn from experience?”
Most mental health professionals agree that there are five stages of change (i.e. pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance), and each relates to the ability to solve problems based on life experiences.
In order to use them in problem-solving, you need to recognize that a problem exists – and at least be ready to plan for action. The 10 points below will help you to examine life experiences and use them as a starting point for action.
1. Consider your life experiences.
It is likely that you have faced some form of a problem before in your life. Even though you may have not liked the outcome, the experience from it will provide some insight about things to do or NOT to do in the future.
If you can identify some problem-solving strategies that didn’t work in the past, then you can eliminate them from your list of choices.
2. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.
Problem-solving can be a complex process with many steps. For example: if you are trying to solve a dilemma related to credit card debt, the chances are that you will have to take multiple actions to achieve your goal. It is also likely that you have encountered some issues with finance before and have attempted some changes.
Instead of disregarding all of your efforts, examine which parts of your strategy worked and which didn’t. Build on your successful efforts and eliminate the ones that didn’t work.
3. Use a solution focused lens.
When a problem pops up, you might say to yourself, “here we go again.” By taking that approach, you are immersing yourself in negative life experiences and will likely find yourself stuck and unable to act.
Instead, look for exceptions to the problem. Are there times that you have been successful in the past? What would things look like once the issue is solved? Looking for solutions rather than focusing on the problem will move you in the right direction.
Start by reworking that internal voice that is suggesting defeat. Tell yourself the following:
- “this problem can be solved,”
- “each problem I face is an opportunity to learn or improve,”
- “I have the ability to make good decisions.”
Changing your self-talk will be a great step toward changing the lens you use to view problems.
4. Reduce emotional decision-making.
If you have ever made a decision based on your emotional reaction, you are likely to have some advice for others about distancing yourself from the problem in order to make a good choice. Emotions tend to cloud our judgement, lead to poor problem-solving, or to even worsening a predicament.
Allow some time in the decision-making process. Instead of making a rash decision, distance yourself from the middle of the problem and to consider various solutions. It is likely that you can come up with some examples from your life experiences that will guide you in the right direction.
5. Trust your intuition.
Intuition is different from emotion. It is the sense of understanding that operates automatically within us without going through a conscious evaluation. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, talked about the notion of trained intuition, or expert intuition. According to Gladwell, intuition that is based on life experience or training can be an excellent source for decision-making and problem-solving.
For example: as a mental health counselor, I often have intuitions about underlying problems that my clients may be facing – even BEFORE they tell me about them. That intuition is based on years of experience and typically turns out to be accurate.
When you are faced with problems and have some level of intuition about how to act, consider the source of the intuition and how it can help you to solve the problem.
6. Clarify the nature of the problem.
Problems can sometimes be quite perplexing. From a psychological perspective, there are often patterns of behavior or thinking that lead us to repeating problems. If we want to change those patterns, then it is important to take the current predicament and try to analyze its nature.
Consider if the problem has been something repetitive and what contributes to that pattern. For example: if you have been in a series of bad relationships and have been treated poorly in each one, what leads you to select those partners? What is the underlying drive for being interested in someone who treats you poorly?
Your life experiences are the clues that will help you to make a significant change with these types of patterns.
7. Be persistent.
Recognize that almost all of life’s problems are solvable. Take some time to review your life experiences, especially those where significant problems arose. A common theme will be that the problem likely passed and that some sort of solution was employed.
By reviewing times that issues were resolved naturally, you will be able to change the way you view current problems. Know that persistence is the main key in most instances. If one solution doesn’t work, it just means that it wasn’t the right one. Keep trying and the problem will eventually be solved.
8. Choose your battles.
Not every problem has to be tackled immediately or at all. When I work with parents, I often tell them to choose battles wisely and to win the battles they take on.
For example: if a parent is tired and doesn’t have the energy to fight with their child over buying candy at the store, I suggest that they give in immediately and make the decision to fight the battle another day. If they are resolute about the child not having any then, regardless of how tired they are, they should not give in.
The same goes for couples. There are levels of problems and you have to determine which ones require energy and which ones can be forgotten. Take a look at some of the battles you have engaged in your life. You will see that some of them were NOT worth the effort.
Help that analysis to drive your current problem-solving. You will be much happier if you limit the battles you take on.
9. Consider multiple elements of your life experiences.
When faced with a problem, you are likely to have an immediate emotional reaction. Because there have been times that you have likely faced the same issue before, consider all of the various elements of your life experiences that can help you come to a solution.
Take some time to sift through memories, events, learning, and other resources of information that you have accumulated to drive the problem-solving process. You already have most of the tools needed – just give yourself the credit you deserve and use them at your disposal.
10. Be proactive.
Most of us find ourselves in the midst of a hole in the ground and say, “how did I get here” OR “how did I get here again”. In order to really take advantage of life experiences, it is important to conduct some self-evaluation and take proactive steps to prevent concerns from becoming problems.
Because self-evaluation can be difficult, I often suggest that people consider mental health counseling to help develop a protective approach. If you haven’t ever tried counseling, you might be surprised to find out how good it feels to have someone who is dedicated to listening to you, to helping you to be self-sufficient, and to enhancing your overall wellness.
Selecting a counselor is the same as selecting any other professional; you have to find one who is a match for your particular needs and personality style. If the first counselor you try doesn’t give you what you need, then find one that does. In the end, this is about YOUR happiness.
Were you successful in using your life experiences to solve problems before?
If you haven’t yet, this short guide should hopefully point you in the right path.
Our life will always be full of problems. But believe in yourself. As they say, when in doubt, re-trace your steps. In this case, use whatever you learned in your life experiences to help you overcome obstacles.